2014 in Books – A Year in Review

IMG-20150129-00190At the start of every year, I have to look back on my year in books. In 2014, somehow I managed to move to Africa, get married, start a PhD program, start a new job, and read 49 books. Three books shy of my goal and still satisfied with myself, I have to tell you which works were worth reading and which I should have spared myself the life minutes.

I started the year off strong with Jose Luandina Vieira‘s The Real LIfe of Domingos Xavier, the English translation of the 1978 A Vida Verdadeira de Domingos XavierThis story of the kidnapping and disappearance of Domingos Xavier unravels the experiences of every day Angolans during the fight for independence. Confronting marxism and modes of resistance, as well as the slow development of the MPLA in the face of continued Portuguese domination, the book is a solid read. In its original version it is credited with authentic local vernacular, a credit to the author – Angolan of Portuguese origin. By February, I was re-reading a book which made a significant impact on me when I first read it back in 2009. Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity by Vijay Prashad is an exploration of the collaborations of African and Asian origin people and ideas. In this global, historical review, Prashad investigates untold stories of interactions that pre-date European colonial intervention, as well as modern-day relationships of resistance. It’s a really powerful text and an easy read for those interested in world history that doesn’t center on White history. Rather than focusing on the cultural clashes, he focuses on cohesion – showing how much more of the latter there have been.


The Black Count by Tom Reiss

Then I struck literary gold in March when I read The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. The book is long as hell, but it’s pretty interesting. I have to be honest and say that I really couldn’t keep track of the three generations of Dumas men here. The revelation that the person who inspired the classics of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was actually a Black man of Haitian birth shouldn’t be all that shocking. I was most interested, however, in the changing racial and social landscape of France – a country that is notorious for pretending to be colorblind and for proclaiming that racism doesn’t exist there.  The real value was reading of how powerful Blacks could ascend in 18th century France and how their equity slowly evaporated with time.

Then I spent the summer months reading some unrelated texts that were interesting in their own right, but more for professional or pleasure reading. I read Stanley McChristal’s My Share of the Task: A Memoir to understand better the man whose 2 decade long career was dethroned by an expose that only covered 2 weeks of his life. Then I read Pearl Cleage’s Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs which is really just a collection of diary entries by the author, thespian, feminist, educator & activist. It’s pretty funny.

I hit a dud in July with Amanda Kovattana‘s Diamonds in my Pocket, about a Thai-English woman who revisits the tensions of her biracial childhood. Her English mother and her Thai father meet, mate and marry, but their views never really seem to match. The premise sounds more interesting than the book actually reads.

Shiva Naipul’s North of South: An African Journey really helped me settle in to my new African life and to commit to my exploration of Asians in southern Africa. This author, the now deceased younger brother of V.S. Naipul, travels from Trinidad to Africa in search of very little other than experience. What comes off as a Brown backpacker’s tale from Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia of the 70’s continues to ring true for me here in Mozambique today. Some people seem to virulently dislike this travel journal and to critique the man who wrote it. It rings pretty true to me, so I’m not sure what that says about me. He definitely cut out all the paternalistic positivity, a la “we are the world” sentiment, people expect to hear from those who come to Africa. Unlike people who seem to dislike the book, he clearly didn’t come to (1) help the people *side eye*, (2) find himself *double side eye*, and/or (3) seek a backdrop for adventure *eye roll completely.* So…it is what it is. Every time I get in a car, I can only think of his words describing how Africans either drive “dangerously slow or dangerously fast.” So true, Shiva.

The week before my wedding, I laughed like hell reading Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, but I don’t think it’s politically correct to say you like anything about the man right now. Too soon for praise, maybe? Moving on…


The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (1964)

Then I latched on to fellow Barnard alum Jane Allen Petrick’s Hidden in Plain Sight, a text about people of color in Norman Rockwell‘s paintings. She searches to find Rockwell subjects to understand just who these people were who were incorporated so subtly into his Americana classics. Clearly, the book is a labor of love, not necessary a wealth of information. But, the topic is interesting and Petrick’s appreciation of the human connection between Rockwell & the people he paid to pose really shines through.

Then I read some really shitty e-books, because they were free. So, steer clear of Motherhoodwinked (though for someone battling infertility, this may have some therapeutic value), The Path To Passive Income (I should have known when the author was “U, Val”), and Heather Graham’s blog series Why I Love New Orleans. Don’t bother…


Then just before Thanksgiving I honed in on South African writing with Nadine Gordimer‘s novel The House Gun and the biography of fellow Witsie Robert Sobukwe (Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better) by Benjamin Pogrund. Both were longer than necessary, though for vastly different reasons. Confronting violence and privilege in South Africa from vastly different angles, these two books are authored by and about writer-activists. Honestly, the back to back reading was a bit more valuable to me than each individually. I’ll spare you the summary, because I think you should read them yourselves.

I’ve already reviewed the trifecta of the year (V.S. Naipul, Ngozi Adichie, and James Weldon Johnson) in my recent blog post on code switching. So, I won’t revisit these.

And the book that left the greatest impression is a book I was very reluctant to read for a very long time. Emma Donoughue’s Room had been sitting in my house for years before I got the courage to read it and I’m so happy that I did. This novel is the story of a 5-year-old boy who has grown up living in one room, because he is the child of a kidnapping & rape victim. Held hostage his whole life, he doesn’t understand his captivity and struggles to cope once released. Heartwarming, gut wrenching, amusing and frighteningly light – this book is an amazing piece of fiction. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves someone.

P1050740I expect that this year will be filled with books for my research, so I’m preparing for less fiction and more history. More Indians and Mozambicans and east African and southern African themes. I’m finally dropping the goal down to 40 books, so I can avoid the inclination to read crappy ebooks to hit a target. I’m going to save my life minutes for real stories that matter and for texts that have value.

Cheers to a more value dense 2015, filled with really awesome bookmarks!

Ring Side: The story of my engagement ring

Wikipedia Rough DiamondI have never seen the movie “Blood Diamond” and I have never downplayed the diamond to sound less materialistic to men. I genuinely wasn’t interested in diamonds and I thought I had three very good reasons why: 1) I think the diamond industry is monopolistic to the point of being predatory all up, down and through it’s delivery chain. 2) I think the act of gifting diamonds is incredibly uncreative. 3) I think it’s just a goddamn rock. Suffice it to say that I have been avidly anti-diamond since my teenage years, but one year in India changed all that.

I was completely unprepared for the realities of the Indian diamond, gem and jewelry market, all of which made me rethink my previous thoughts. First, while the industry remains incredibly brutal, the industry’s pricing for Indian consumers is drastically less than it is for its Western consumers. The difference is dramatic; often the same quality stone (and often a lower quality gold setting) will cost an American two to three times as much in America than it costs an American in India. Imagine the price drop for an Indian in India. Maybe the delivery chain on that side of the Atlantic ocean isn’t as predatory? Second, when I buy diamonds for myself, that nullifies the creativity clause. Whatever I buy for myself is always incredibly fly. And, third, when the price of said rock becomes affordable, dare I say reasonable, then maybe I can remove the diminutive “just” from my thoughts and acknowledge, without judgment, that yes, it is a rock. A very pretty rock.

Well, it took me a full year to actually buy diamond jewelry for myself. The first purchase was gut wrenching. It was a Mughal style antique emerald and uncut diamond ring, set in what’s probably just aluminum foil. I was too much of a novice then to know that I should not have paid what I paid, but it was pretty and I thought that buying vintage was like recycling – no? No. It’s not and I wasn’t fooling anybody but myself with this shucking and jiving intended to distract from the fact that I was really making a fundamental change. Perhaps, I can only liken the jolt of my buying diamonds to what I imagine it would feel like for me – a pescatarian for 11 years – to eat land-animal meat again. Taking that step would mean that many boundaries, more ritual than moral, would be broken. I asked myself, “is there anything you won’t do?” (If I told you my answer, I’d have to kill you.)

Imagine my shock and awe when I fell in love with my engagement ring. To be clear, I fell in love with the ring AFTER I fell in love with the man. But, the ring and my reaction to it caught us all by surprise – me, my jeweler, and my fiancée. See, both my jeweler and my fiancée had heard my long rants about how I didn’t want a diamond wedding ring and how diamonds were so incredibly boring. I can still see my fiancée’s face now – his pockets disappointed, but his eyes gloated “gotcha now little miss goodie two shoes!” Yea well he got me, literally. Only my visiting friend – ever the touchstone of American stereotypes – reminded me that I was supposed to want a diamond ring. That, in fact, I should want an even larger one than the one I wanted and that I’d be a fool for thinking that now was the time for playing teenage anti-diamond activist.

Yet, for the three of us who looked like deer caught in headlights, the knockdown drag out battle between me and myself raged on for close to an hour. What did I stand for if I would cave now? Didn’t that violate thought #2? Hadn’t I broken all my rules when I bought my own diamond jewelry? Was I being a hypocrite? Did I set this man up to think he would really be able to marry me by proposing with a piece of ivory, when what I really wanted was bling? Wasn’t he stupid for believing me in the first place?

Maybe the answer to all these questions is ‘hell yes.’ All I know is that I walked out of that store an engaged woman and everybody was all smiles. The morally sound little girl inside of me awoke from her slumber, but then she stared into the glow from the pretty, shiny rocks on my left hand and she went to sleep dreamily happy.

I laid that little girl to rest peacefully in India and, gleefully, showed off the symbol of my being a taken woman. In India, people don’t typically get engaged with diamond rings. So, there’s no oohing and aahing over the jewels. They want to know why they haven’t yet received the wedding invitation, if I’m planning to have a nikah or if I want to wear bangles for a full year. In their minds, if the date isn’t set – then what’s the value of yapping about being engaged? Fair enough.

I have no answer for that wedding date question, but first things first! I had to come home to face the family and friends I left behind – those that wished me well and those that clearly couldn’t give a damn. There were the men of yesteryear that said, ‘yea, I saw your Facebook page. That’s him right?’ And my cousin who, 3 weeks after seeing me in person wearing my ring, said “Congrats girl! I just saw your ring in your pictures. You’re engaged, right?” We all knew this day would come, but oh how awkward and social media dependent it was.

Let me say, here more than ever I’ve had to go back to rethinking the ring. Let me just list a few of the questions I’ve gotten, “What kind of cut is that? Why did you get a band? How many carats is it? What’s the clarity? From India, really? He must really love you, huh?” I could go on, but I’m too tired to dig.  Obviously, nothing was ever meant with malice and a lot of the time people sounded more impressed with my ring than even I was. What’s come full circle, however, are the original questions I asked myself about what having, buying, wearing diamonds means to me.

My few self-purchased pieces are really just for show. They are not born from an act of love, or a symbol of ever-lasting commitment. They are not meant to be worn everyday and they are more an investment than adornment. But, my engagement ring – the very thing that binds this man’s heart to me despite the almost 8,000 miles that lay between us – is special. It shouldn’t be a challenge to some teenage rules I lived by to silently shame the De Beers and Oppenheimer families. It shouldn’t be a fall from moral grace. It shouldn’t be a topic of conversation or comparison. It shouldn’t be a symbol of self-doubt.

It should be transcendent. Symbolic of a new era. A time when I don’t owe anyone, but this man, an explanation for my actions, my choices, my happiness, and my glee. For all intents and purposes, this set of rocks is supposed to symbolize change, the forging of a new foundation with a partner. Perhaps, this is a choice that I can make while on this team that I never would have made alone. Dare I say, it never even occurred to me to make this choice when I was alone. As I think about it now, it never occurred to me even when I was previously in serious relationships. What my inner teenager would call being a sell out, feels a lot like being an adult to me now.  In other words, it sure feels like I know ‘he’s the one.’ He, being the man – not the ring.

So, like I said, until about two months ago I was avidly anti-diamond. As of today, I’m madly in love with a man who loves the woman I am today, the raging teenager he had to assuage to get to me and the sleeping little girl that he kisses on the forehead every night via Skype.  For all the things that this ring conjures up of my past and the road that led to that serendipitous trip to Mumbai in October, I am rendered speechless by all that it will mean in the days we have yet to see.

‘Til every last prong breaks, and every last diamond falls out – may we be bigger than our abstract thoughts and open to all the new challenges that this partnership will withstand. May we be strong and light. May we be a rock.

A very pretty rock.